At her home in Dublin, actress Tara Flynn recalls how, 12 years ago, she learned she was pregnant. It was not planned.
“I was 37. I was single. I wasn’t working very much, and I didn’t want to be a parent,” Flynn says.
She didn’t want to have a baby and give it up for adoption, either. But with abortion being illegal in Ireland, her only option at the time was to leave the country to end her pregnancy.
Seven years later, in 2013, Ireland began allowing abortions, but only if a pregnant woman’s life is in danger. Otherwise it remains totally banned.
Ireland’s abortion law is one of the strictest in the world. In Europe, only Malta and Vatican City have total bans.
But in May, Ireland plans to hold a referendum on whether to change its laws and allow unrestricted abortion up to 12 weeks into a pregnancy. The referendum, whose exact date has not yet been set, will ask voters whether they want to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which outlaws abortion.
This isn’t the first time Irish voters have been asked to weigh in on abortion. In 1983, they voted 67 percent to 33 percent to add the constitutional amendment, which acknowledges “the right to life of the unborn, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother.” It prevented any future Irish government from introducing legislation allowing abortion.
Abortion was already illegal, dating back to a 1861 law enacted during British rule. When Ireland became independent from the U.K. in 1922, it kept an abortion ban on its books but added the 8th Amendment later, to prevent future changes.
One of the things Irish voters are evaluating in the lead-up to the May vote is whether their country’s abortion ban has actually prevented abortions.
Flynn considers herself proof that it doesn’t. She managed to get an abortion abroad, and thousands of other Irish women do the same every year.
“I had a credit card, so I was lucky to be able to travel. Many people can’t,” Flynn says. “As soon as I had a few days to live with my decision, I booked a flight.”
She flew to the Netherlands. But most Irish women seeking abortions go to the U.K. Ireland’s health minister says 3,265 Irish women got abortions in Britain in 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available.
But that number only reflects the number of women who give Irish home addresses at abortion clinics. Others give temporary U.K. addresses or refuse to provide any home address at all.
That number of 3,265 women represents a decline from past years. In 2001, at least 6,673 Irish women traveled to the U.K. for abortions. The decline coincides with the availability of abortion pills online, through the black market. Such pills are illegal in Ireland and are often seized by postal authorities. But one 2016 report shows that 1,642 abortion pill packages were sent to Ireland by a single provider from 2010 to 2012.
Experts, no matter their stance on the issue, generally acknowledge that Irish women get abortions at roughly the same rate as other Europeans — they just have to go abroad for it.
The expense can be daunting. Abortion clinics in the U.K. offer discounts to women traveling from jurisdictions where the procedure is illegal, but it still costs hundreds of dollars — plus the cost of travel, accommodation and time off work or school.
To help them, there’s a network of volunteers discreetly shuttling thousands of Irish women to abortion clinics.
“I will do the very English thing and offer them a cup of tea,” says volunteer Zoe Durnford, who hosts Irish women at her home in London. “I set up a bed in the corner of my sitting room here. I make them dinner. A lot of them really do want to chat about anything else apart from what’s going to happen.”
Two summers ago, two Irish women amassed more than 23,000 Twitter followers as they live-tweeted their abortion journey to Enda Kenny, then the prime minister. He did not respond publicly. But his successor, Leo Varadkar, has said he will campaign to overturn Ireland’s abortion ban.
The decision to hold a referendum was made late last year, after a Citizens’ Assembly of 99 randomly selected Irish citizens voted in favor of advising the government to liberalize its abortion law. An all-party committee of the parliament did the same, and so did Ireland’s attorney general.
Polls show a majority of Irish voters want abortion legalized. Even voters who are deeply uncomfortable with abortion may acknowledge the reality of so many Irish women traveling elsewhere for the procedure. That could tip the polls this May, says Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole.
“Do people cling on to a principle, this constitutional ban on abortion, which many people still like?” says O’Toole, a visiting scholar at Princeton University. “Or do they say, ‘Look, we can’t go on pretending that, uniquely in the world, we don’t have women terminating their pregnancies — when the overwhelming evidence is that they do.'”
But abortion remains an emotional issue, and for some, a deeply religious one, that has divided Ireland.
“If [the 8th Amendment] is repealed, that’s the end of my Ireland,” says Tom Flanagan, 76, coming out of Mass at his Catholic church in Roscommon, 90 miles west of Dublin. “Ireland can’t lead in economics or sports or anything else, but we have this opportunity to be a leader in Europe when it comes to morality — and yet we’re throwing it all away to become a little, average European state.”
Roscommon is a mostly agricultural area with high unemployment ever since its coal mines closed a generation ago. It’s a conservative corner of an otherwise fast-changing country.
In a 1995 referendum, the Irish voted to legalize divorce. In 2015, they did the same for same-sex marriage — except in Roscommon, the only county in Ireland that voted against it. Many of its residents say they oppose abortion too.
“The metropolitan areas want to push their views on us,” says Eugene Murphy, who represents Roscommon in Ireland’s parliament, the Dail. “But no matter what they call us, we are intelligent. We are compassionate. We make decisions, but we think about them.”
Murphy plans to vote against legalizing abortion. Calls from his constituents are 4-to-1 against, he says.
Attitudes are very different at Trinity College Dublin, where many students wear T-shirts that say “Repeal the 8th.” The university went on strike in January to campaign for legalizing abortion. There are abortion rights rallies and marches almost every week.
Many of Ireland’s youth still identify as Catholic, but no longer adhere to church teachings.
“I don’t know anyone’s grandparents who would be pro-choice, including my own,” says philosophy student Roisin Doyle Bakari, 20. “I guess if you grew up in such an extreme Catholic environment your whole life, to suddenly jump to an environment, within your own lifetime, where people are voting on abortion, on gay marriage — it must be such a massive jump. So I get that, but it’s still like, it’s holding everyone else back.”
Doyle Bakari plans to vote to repeal the abortion ban. She sees this referendum as another milestone in Ireland’s modernization. She doesn’t take it lightly.
“This is our actual human rights. This is our healthcare,” she says. “This is so important.”